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Many issues discussed at Pork Congress legislative forum

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 10:00 AM

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MINNEAPOLIS — School funding, the state budget and tax reform were among the issues discussed by three legislative leaders at a Minnesota Pork Congress legislative forum.

The forum, held Jan. 16, featured Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Policy Committee, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, lead Republican on the House Agriculture Policy Committee, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, chairman of the Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

After a few opening remarks, the trio took questions from the audience. The first question was on the budget and funding for rural schools.

The budget will be the No. 1 issue this session, Sparks said. In the past, too many accounting shifts and gimmicks have been used to balance the budget. These gimmicks often pushed the money problems to local governments, schools, for example.

The state has paid back part of the shift, but more needs to be done, he said.

Last session was the most difficult session he has served in, Hamilton said, but the state went from a $5 billion budget deficit to a $1.3 billion surplus in one year because of the difficult work done by legislators. At the same time, they gave more money to rural schools and nursing homes.

He is guided by three principles, shared with him by a 100-year-old man: Don't spend more money than you have, understand needs v. wants and understand the implications of your actions.

The state isn't out of the fiscal woods yet and this year the there won't be gridlock because the Legislature and governor's office are controlled by people of the same party, he said.

Legislators will really have to look at needs v. wants this session, Poppe said, as sometimes wants morph into needs.

Balancing the budget will require legislators to look long-term at the ebb and flow of tax collections. Tax reform will certainly be on the table as legislators look at where to cut spending and how to stabilize tax collections, she said.

Everything is on the table, Sparks said, including taxing clothing and Internet sales.

The sales tax may be lowered and applied to more things in an attempt to stabilize collections, Poppe said. It won't necessarily bring in more money.

Watch for a sales tax on agricultural inputs, Hamilton said, adding that he is concerned about agricultural tax exemptions being thrown on the table.

The three-legged stool of income, property and sales tax has gotten out of balance, he said.

Poppe said there needs to be more transparency in legislative decision-making. Rather than three people in a room or one person making a decision, tell all the legislators what the deal is and engage the public.

She encouraged the people at the Pork Congress forum to tell their legislators the impact of removing agricultural tax incentives. Offer ideas to stabilize the state's revenue. The input of the people of Minnesota is valuable as we are all in this together, Poppe said.

Agricultural issues

Sparks said ongoing research funding for the veterinary diagnostic laboratory and crafting a bill from the NextGen board will be discussed this year.

Hamilton is concerned about losing the $10 million to $11 million in the Agricultural Growth Research and Innovation Fund. He supports using those funds for agricultural literacy programs.

Poppe suggested that some of the money be designated to an Ag101 for legislators.

Section 179 depreciation

Hamilton said he'll put a bill together to make Minnesota equal to federal standards for Section 179 depreciation.

Farm business management

Sparks serves on the higher education committee, where farm business management funding is decided. He supports fully funding this program, saying it's an integral part of agriculture and very useful for business planning.

Poppe will watch farm business management funding as well, as she sits on the House higher education committee.

Hamilton said there are funding concerns, but that farm business management is critical to farmers and the data gathered is used as a resource by many.

Farmer-lender mediation

Sparks will carry a bill this session to extend the expiration date of farmer-lender mediation. He said there will be a discussion on raising the $5,000 limit.

Hamilton agreed, saying there will also be a debate in the House over raising the threshold to enter mediation. He supports the program.

Poppe will carry the legislation in the House.